Thursday, July 25, 2013

Salty Language

Everyday commodities are so intertwined with human events that it is possible to write history (local, regional, or world) from the perspective of any one of them. So, too, with everyday age-old technologies. I’ve read histories of spices, horse domestication, pork, astronomy (think Stonehenge), masonry, libraries, cod, rats, mapmaking, and shipbuilding, among many others.  In college, I wrote papers of my own on the role of grain, calendars, and taxes in historical events. A well written book of this sort can make it seem as though the chosen item is the key to understanding the whole human saga. Of course this never is true. The item is just one part of the whole. Nonetheless, such focused histories are valuable, because they remind us that individual parts matter. There are moments when a better map, a better ship, a crop failure, or an ill-considered tax really does make a difference. A small thing, which we take for granted most of the time, can tip the scales at critical junctures.

At present I’m reading Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky, a prime example of the genre. Salt is something we take very much for granted in the modern world. (A salt is a compound formed by a chemical reaction between an acid and a base, and Kurlansky addresses several different chemicals, but in this instance I refer only to sodium chloride, common table salt.) When we think about salt at all nowadays, it is usually just to worry we are eating too much of it. It is so cheap and plentiful that 51% of all the salt used in the US is simply thrown on roads in the wintertime. This wasn’t always the case. Though underground seams and domes of salt are plentiful, and the oceans are full of the stuff, getting at it traditionally has been a labor intensive business. There are two traditional methods of collecting salt. Both are still used, though modern equipment makes the job easier. The first is the evaporation of sea water – or of water from brine springs. (More than one town has been named Salina after its salt springs.) The other is the dangerous business of mining. Rock salt is the only rock that humans eat – well, normal humans anyway.

All animals need salt. Carnivores, including humans who eat a lot of red meat or seafood, can get what they need through their diet. Herbivores need to make a special effort to find it, which is why salt licks are popular with horses and cattle, and why all agricultural peoples (but not hunters) have produced salt. The amount needed for metabolic purposes isn’t very large, though. What turned salt production into a major industry was something else. Prior to the advent of modern refrigeration a little more than a century ago, salt was the only way to preserve food effectively. It also was a useful disinfectant. Historically, people ate huge amounts of salted fish, salt pork and salt beef, as well as vegetables and fruits pickled in brine, notably olives. Armies scarcely could move without large supplies of salted foods, which were the only ones that would keep. As late as the US Civil War, Confederate salt works were prime targets of Union raids. Said General William Tecumseh Sherman in 1862, “Salt is eminently contraband, because of its use in curing meats, without which armies cannot be subsisted.” It wasn’t just meats. The Roman habit of salting vegetables is the source of the word “salad.” Cato in De Agricultura: “If you want your cabbage chopped, washed, dried, sprinkled with salt or vinegar, there is nothing healthier.” When precious metals were scarce, Roman soldiers were sometimes paid in salt, hence the word “salary.” Salt long has had associations with sex and fertility, hence “salacious.” In ancient China, salt taxes were a major source of revenue – and of controversy. So they were also in 18th century France, though that particular tax regimen ended badly for the royal government.

There is something pleasing about the way one can derive such a broad history from a single item. In a whimsical moment back in college, I considered writing a paper on the role of the marshmallow in history. After all, marshmallows have been found in ancient Egyptian tombs, and were considered both a tasty treat and a medicine. At the time they literally were made from the marshmallow (Althaea officinalis), as they continued to be through the 19th century. The plant extracts were replaced with gelatin in most recipes in the 20th. I chose another topic in the end because, in those pre-internet days, the research loomed as a bit daunting for what was a minor assignment. But perhaps I’ll return to the subject yet. Who knows? Perhaps marshmallows really will prove to be the key to understanding the whole human saga.

The Salt of the Earth


  1. You make a great point about salt. It is something that seems to come up in history as a vital commodity, but it is something we just don't really consider any more.

    It reminds me of a teacher I had in university. It was my Medieval History professor, if memory serves. He was interested in seeing how the type of grain a civilization utilized ended up affecting their culture. He felt strongly that the cultivation of rice in the East really impacted the way those cultures viewed religion and philosophy. I don't remember all the details of his theory, but he was very excited about it. :)

  2. "You are what you eat," as many lapel pins and posters proclaimed in my 1960s youth. The phrase (in English anyway) actually was popularized 40 years earlier by nutritionist Victor Lindlahr, but, for a variety of reasons (a few of them a bit juvenile), it was re-popularized in the 60s.